14th Street PeopleWay: BRT or Bus Parking Lot

As long-time advocates of measures to reduce car travel and increase bike, ped, and transit use, the 14th Street PeopleWay is very exciting. It’s thrilling that it has already gained so much traction.

As the primary motivation of the PeopleWay is to help move people who will be hurt by L-Mageddon, buses will need to play a major role in the 14th Street PeopleWay. While the MTA and NYCDOT work out plans for the L train shutdown, we hope these lessons learned the hard way in other cities may provide New York with some useful insights.

Bus lanes, and even SBS-style fare collection, will only help so much. Without full BRT, the 14th Street PeopleWay will become a bus parking lot.

High bus volumes on 14th Street, even today, cause bus bunching and queues at stops.

High bus volumes on 14th Street, even today, cause bus bunching and queues at stops.

In classic BRT planning terms, busways are designed around the number of passengers moving in the peak hour, peak direction (PPHPD). A single standard bus-only lane can handle between 4,000 – 6,000 PPHPD. Currently, there are about 2,000 PPHPD on the M14A and M14D westbound from 8 am to 9 am. The buses are currently moving at a glacial 4mph, and they frequently bunch up. Once the L train shuts, they will be joined by approximately 3,500 additional PPHPD from intra-Manhattan L trips with no subway alternative and another 4,500 PPHPD crossing from Brooklyn into Manhattan on the L with destinations along 14th Street. Thus, the potential PPHPD on 14th Street could skyrocket to 10,000, a bus volume all but unknown in the US, and far more than a standard bus-only lane can handle.

A bus lane can handle only as many buses as the bottleneck station can accommodate. On 14th Street, this is the bus stop near Irving Place just before Union Square. When buses occupy the most congested bus stop for more than 40% of the time, the bus lane congests and speeds drop sharply. When buses occupy the stop 100% of the time, the busway becomes a parking lot.

That’s what’s happened in São Paulo: the Antonio Rosa BRT station, the station with one of the highest boarding volumes on the Rebouças corridor, was rebuilt without considering how to handle the bus volumes, and every morning buses grind to a standstill.

A single lane bus lane in São Paulo congested with volumes similar to what we expect on 14th Street

A single lane bus lane in São Paulo became a parking lot with volumes similar to what we expect on 14th Street

Cities with bus corridors carrying similarly high numbers of passengers have learned from the lessons in São Paulo. Major advances have been made in busway design, which can be seen in cities like Rio de Janeiro, Johannesburg, and Seoul. Now that we are facing similar volumes in New York on 14th Street, we need to draw from the strategies other cities have used to create a busway that moves freely.

Designing for high volumes on 14th Street

If nobody were getting on or off, each bus would still take about 18 seconds to pull up at the bus stop and open and close its doors. With the roughly 85 buses an hour needed to handle the projected demand on 14th Street, the main bus stops are already occupied 25 minutes out of an hour, so every stop has already reached 40% occupancy; in other words, the busway will already congest, even before we consider the time taken by passengers getting on and off.

This can be mitigated using the following design measures:

  1. Provide adequate space for buses at stations. With the bus volumes anticipated on 14th Street, providing one or two bus bays, in most cases, is not enough. If all buses stopped at the same place at a bus stop, that bus stop would quickly become saturated. By splitting the congested bus stops into two separate sub-stops, with two docking bays each, only half the buses need to stop at the first sub-stop and the other half could stop at the second sub-stop. Between each sub-stop, buses would have two places to dock. In this way, four buses at a time can board passengers simultaneously. From our calculations, this is the amount of space needed at the highest ridership station (Irving Place near Union Square). Other stations could probably be shorter with the exact length calculated based on anticipated levels of saturation.
  1. Include passing lanes.
 After a passing lane was added at a bus stop on the Seoul BRT, buses were able to pull around each other and the previously congested Seoul busway decongested.

After a passing lane was added at a bus stop on the Seoul BRT, buses were able to pull around each other and the previously congested Seoul busway decongested.

For these volumes, passing lanes at stations are needed. When a bus finishes boarding and is ready to move on, it can pull around the other buses still stopped at the station. If it        can’t do this, more buses queue up and station saturation occurs.

Note that we do not need a dual bus lane all the way across 14th Street, as has been suggested in other forums. Since the bottleneck for a busway is always at stations, the passing      lane need only be at stations. Further, if stations are offset (meaning one block gets a westbound station, the next block gets the eastbound station), we only need one passing lane    on each station block. On blocks without stations, there is more space to reclaim.

We’ve developed a conceptual design for a westbound bus stop at Irving Place just before Union Square that would have the capacity to handle all the passengers we expect. Note that the bus stop itself would consume one lane of 14th Street, so that passengers waiting for buses don’t block the sidewalk, and there is still enough room for a bikeway. As there is no room left for mixed traffic on this block, the first block of Irving Place can be transformed into Irving Plaza, since it no longer serves a traffic function: a public space bonus.

14th-st-brt-concept

These design measures are necessary but not sufficient to solve the problem. There is still the delay caused by passengers boarding and alighting. Currently, passengers on the M14A and M14D take, on average, 4.48 seconds to board and 1.45 seconds to alight. It takes much longer to board than to alight because currently passengers have to step into the bus and pay the driver, and boarding passengers can only enter through the front door.

The following two at-stop measures can reduce the boarding and alighting delay to the point that buses flow freely:

14th-st-station-saturation

  1. Off-board fare collection. If all of the bus routes on 14th Street (M14A, M14D, and any other new routes brought in to mitigate the L Train shutdown) have off-board fare collection like on SBS, the delay per boarding and alighting passenger drops significantly (1.2s and 0.8s per passenger, respectively). MTA and DOT might even consider pre-paid fare zones, like what is being rolled out in Chicago and on most BRTs internationally, rather than “proof-of-purchase” which is the method currently employed on SBS. This would save passengers the anxiety of inspectors demanding tickets, and would avoid the delay that currently happens when inspectors hold the bus while they check everybody’s ticket. However, with off-board fare collection alone, the Irving Place/Union Square station will still congest, so the whole corridor still ultimately grinds to a halt.
  2. At-level boarding.
At-level boarding on the BRT in Eugene, OR

At-level boarding on the BRT in Eugene, OR

With at-level boarding in addition to the above three measures, delay drops yet again. This is because it takes a lot less time for elderly passengers, passengers in wheelchairs, passengers with children in strollers, shopping carts, or luggage to enter the bus at-level. At-level boarding is increasingly widespread in BRT systems in the US, including in Cleveland, Eugene, San Bernardino, Hartford/New Britain, and Grand Rapids.

With these core features, 14th Street could accommodate most of the displaced L train passengers – as well as those riding the M14 buses – that would still need to travel within this corridor. In this way, the 14th Street PeopleWay, in addition to reclaiming 14th Street from cars, can become, within Manhattan, a genuine alternative to the L during L-Mageddon and beyond.

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